Elvis' first great protest song

By: Paul Simpson
Source: www.elvis.com.au
May 13, 2023

Elvis PresleyHound Dog was Elvis' first great protest song. Social rebellion had been implicit in many of his greatest Sun performances - especially Good Rocking Tonight - and became explicit in Baby Let's Play House where his sexy, yet sinister vocal directly challenges the mores of Fifties America, warning his girl that college, school and Cadillacs didn't make her a better person. But 13 years before In The Ghetto, Elvis' aggressive, dynamic cover of Big Mama Thornton's R&B hit, was an epic expression of a working class hero's righteous anger against those who had judged, misunderstood and patronised him.

Elvis' Hound Dog Elvis Presley Lyricswas a sound no one was prepared for. Those 137 seconds changed popular culture forever. Even today, I suspect it is denied airplay because it is, by the standards of most radio stations, simply too loud. 'A lot of noise', as Mike Stoller complained. The furore surrounding Elvis' Hound Dog - especially his [so called] X-rated rendition on the Milton Berle show - was so great the music got a bit lost. Later, the controversy changed as it became fashionable to accuse Elvis of ripping off black music.

Even though Thornton's hit was penned by two white Jewish songwriters, Leiber and Stoller, the novelist Alice Walker wrote a short story 'Nineteen Fifty Five' in which a white singer covers a black woman's song to become rich and famous, but dies alone, racked by guilt that he never understood the tune. Elvis' version differs substantially from Thornton's original both in the lyrics he uses and the way he sings it. There is a great funky clip of Thornton singing it.

There's less pure anger and more of a sense of Thornton definitively shutting the door on her unfaithful lover. In her original, she used all kinds of inflections and syncopations to play with the rhythm and accentuate the lyrics and encouraged her band to bark and howl.

The song was covered semi-seriously by Freddie Bell and the Bellboys who upped the tempo, reworked the lyrics, adding the line about never catching rabbits, and turned it into a kind of nonsense song.

In truth, there had always been something inherently comic about Hound Dog, a quality Elvis' idol Rufus Thomas exploited when he recorded the answer song Bear Cat on Sun in 1953 with the killer line in Thomas's song was 'You can purr pretty kitty but I ain't gonna rub you more'.

Elvis drew on all these versions to create his, recorded at RCA Studios in New York on 2 July 1956, sticking to his task with phenomenal energy and perfectionism, cutting 31 takes before he was satisfied and toying with (but rejecting) the dramatic finale he had used on I Got A Woman.

Elvis' cover had a nuclear effect on America, especially when he taunted the studio audience on Milton Berle with a few bumps and grinds. He recorded the song the morning after he had sung it on the 'Steve Allen Show', confined in a tuxedo, barely moving, just wiping away the indignity at the end as he wipes his jacket. The condemnations had left him in a defiant mood. 'I don't care what they say', he told reporters, 'it ain't nasty'. And outside the RCA studio, fans were waving placards declaring 'We want the real Elvis'.

That defiance fuels his snarling vocal, Scotty Moore's slashing lead guitar and DJ Fontana's relentless drumming. In Elvis' version, the accusation into which he injects the most venom (apart from his closing rebuke about never catching rabbits) is his complaint that: 'They said you was high classed - well that was just a lie'.

Just listen to the thrilling scorn Elvis brings to the words 'high classed'. On this song, his voice was, Robert Plant said, 'confident, insinuating and taking no prisoners. He had those great whoops and diving moments, those sustains that swoop down on the note like a bird of prey'.

Elvis' Hound Dog is, Rolling Stone proclaimed, 'a declaration of independence from one generation to its cold, rigid elders'. It is also, in a more personal sense, Elvis' rebuke to his critics. Amplifying the demand for personal space in Blue Suede Shoes, this 'musical machine gun' - to quote Ernst Jorgensen - challenged critics, moralists and parents with the question: who are you to judge me?

The rebuke was even more powerful because it came in a code that flummoxed middle America.

The references to hound dogs and rabbits were mystifying and menacing to his cold, rigid elders - although, as Stoller later confirmed, hound dog was code for something far cruder.

In October 1957, during Hound Dog at the Pan Pacific Auditorium, Los Angeles, Elvis cavorted on stage with a replica of the RCA dog Nipper. After the performance, journalist Dick Williams called this 'lesson in pornography' a 'corruption of the innocent on a scale such as I have never witnessed before'.

Articles about Elvis Presley [See our article Elvis Presley Pan Pacific Auditorium, Los Angeles - October 28 & 29, 1957]

Elvis could never again bring the same attack to the song - apart from the wildman shriek with which he surprised the audience in Las Vegas in 1969. The anger that had focused his performance in 1956 had diffused and he played with the song, speeding it up, slowing it down, acknowledging the joke.

But when he cut it in July 1956 it really was, as Elvis said in his jokey preamble to his cover on Elvis In Person, a 'message song, a song that really means something'.

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